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'AFL has such big resources that they are identifying players from the age of 12'

Rebels coaches Shaun Berne and Eoin Toolan outline the challenges rugby faces in Melbourne.

ALONGSIDE THE CAFÉ in which we’re sitting is an Aussie Rules pitch where Collingwood, 15-times Australian Football League winners, sometimes train.

A few 100 metres away is the 100,024-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground, the largest stadium in Australia and host to some of the biggest cricket Tests in the world, as well as the home of four AFL clubs – Melbourne, Richmond, Collingwood and Hawthorn.

Across the road from the brightly-lit café on a fresh Melbourne winter morning is the Hisense Arena, where National Basketball League side Melbourne United play, while a one-minute walk will take you to the Rod Laver Arena, the main venue for the Australian Open tennis tournament.

And just beyond Collingwood’s training pitch is the curiously-bulbous looking AAMI Park, where Super Rugby side Melbourne Rebels are based.

A view of AAMI Park ahead of the game AAMI Park hosted Ireland's second Test against the Wallabies. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even in their home is a constant reminder of the battle the Rebels face in this fiercely competitive sporting environment, with National Rugby League side Melbourne Storm and A-League football teams Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory also playing out of AAMI Park.

Sitting across the table with coffees in front of them are Melbourne Rebels attack and backs coach Shaun Berne and head performance analyst and kicking coach Eoin Toolan.

Sydney native Berne played for Leinster 23 times between 2009 and 2011, while also starring for Old Belvedere in the AIL before moving into coaching with St. Mary’s College and Coolmine RFC.

Leinster appointed him as an elite player development officer [EPDO] in 2015 but he was soon lured back to Australia in 2017 as an attack coach with the Western Force and moved to the Rebels ahead of the start of the 2018 season.

Irishman Toolan, a Greystones clubman, joined the Rebels in late 2013 after more than five years as part of Ireland’s analysis team under Mervyn Murphy, with the 2009 Grand Slam the highlight during that time.

Berne and Toolan, therefore, are in strong positions to draw comparisons between Ireland and the challenges the Rebels face in attracting talented athletes into rugby union.

The southeastern state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital city, is famous as AFL country in Australia but cricket, rugby league, soccer and more sports are vying for the most talented young athletes.

“We’re putting more resources into youth development officers getting out to non-traditional rugby schools and trying to identify these athletes younger because that’s the big challenge,” explains Toolan.

“AFL has such big resources that they are identifying players from the age of 12 and they’re basically picking the best athletes, maybe not the best AFL players at 12, but the guy who can kick the ball furthest and run the fastest.

“It’s up to us to break into that market and identify these guys. The more Victorians that are playing for the club, the more there’s going to be a local affinity to the club. That’s going to take time.”

Shaun Berne Berne was an EPDO officer with Leinster before his move back to Australia. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Berne, having seen up close the way Leinster operate, echoes Toolan.

“It’s a battle here in Victoria,” says Berne, whose father John is a Belfast native who ended up getting a cap for the Wallabies after moving to Australia with his family as a boy.

“Irish rugby identified that you need to have the development at a younger age. By the time a kid gets into a senior squad at Leinster, Connacht, Munster or Ulster, he needs to have a certain skillset.

“The IRFU have employed EPDOs to run the academies and underage side of things.

“In Australian rugby, there have been various methods to try and do that but I think we’ve now realised that we need to focus on the kids at underage level and try to educate the coaches.

“Australia has so many choices of sports, kids going in so many different directions, whereas in Ireland you’re either in the GAA or rugby, or maybe football. I think Australia is so diverse that we’re playing a bit of catch-up in identifying the athletes and Australian rugby is now putting in those resources.”

Toolan cites the Rebels’ exciting and versatile back three player Jack Maddocks as a good example of how a young rugby player might come through into their system.

“He’s in the Wallabies set-up at the moment but in his last year in school, he wasn’t even playing first-grade rugby,” says Toolan, who spent much of last week back in the Ireland set-up observing how they put a Test match week together under Joe Schmidt.

“He was a really talented cricketer, so it’s hard to imagine but a guy who wasn’t playing first-grade rugby in his last year of school now has nearly 20 Super Rugby caps and is involved with the Wallabies at the age of 21.”

Berne points to a schoolboy team-mate of Maddocks’ at Scots College in Sydney, Angus Crichton, as just one of those who got away.

22-year-old Crichton is a rugby league star for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and is currently involved in the State of Origin series.

“He could have been a James Ryan in terms of his impact, playing for the Rebels or the Waratahs.”

Sam Whitelock Will Genia has been a key signing for the Rebels this year. Source: Photosport/Brendon Ratnayake/INPHO

That Maddocks is a Sydney boy is typical for the Rebels, with very few of their squad being Victorians.

Toolan cites the recent emergence of Victoria locals such as Wallabies-capped hooker Jordan Uelese, back row Rob Leota and centre Sione Tuipulotu as “a great achievement” for the Rebels while also pointing out the club is still only eight-years-old.

“The nomadic nature of the club is something you can turn into quite a strength, gelling a group together,” continues Toolan. “The guys who come from elsewhere and the guys from Melbourne, we spend a lot of time together.

“Potentially in Sydney or Brisbane, the players would all be from the town so they’ve got their family and their schoolmates already there. In Melbourne, we spend a lot of time together and that’s helped.”

With 17 professional sporting clubs for the people of Melbourne to choose from, the battle for bums on seats is also ferocious.

The Rebels had an attendance of 16,135 at AAMI Park for the visit of New Zealand’s Hurricanes in March, with the fact that the Rebels had enjoyed a strong start to the Super Rugby season swelling their numbers.

However, their average attendance this year is just under 10,000 in a city with a population of around 3.8 million.

“Melbournians just love successful teams,” says Toolan, who recalls going to Melbourne United’s basketball games when there were 1,000 people there, only to see the crowds swell to 10,000 for some of United’s games as they won the NBL title this year.

“I would hope that, in time, if we are successful, Melbourne and Victoria could start to really warm to rugby and people see there are other options outside AFL,” adds Berne.

Despite the challenges, the Rebels are having a fine season under new head coach Dave Wessels, who was in the mix for the Munster job before Rassie Erasmus was appointed.

Vincent Hammond, Eoin Toolan and Mervyn Murphy Toolan, centre, in 2013 with Ireland analysts Vinny Hammond and Mervyn Murphy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After a single win in 2017, the Rebels have won seven of their 13 games this year and are in the hunt for the play-offs ahead of the resumption of Super Rugby in two weekends’ time, when the Waratahs come to Melbourne for what should be an excellent game.

Last year, the Rebels endured what Toolan calls the “surreal” situation of playing while they had “an axe hanging over our heads,” with Rugby Australia attempting to decide whether the Perth-based Force or the Rebels would be cut from Super Rugby.

Berne was an assistant coach to Wessels at the Force last year and he knows exactly how Toolan and those at the Rebels felt: ”Humans don’t like that uncertainty, it was emotionally exhausting.”

It was the Force who were chopped from Super Rugby in the end, leading to Wessels, Berne and several players moving across the country to the Rebels.

Wessels is highly-regarded for his coaching intellect and despite being just 36-years-old, he has already built up a fine CV.

“I think he’s actually the most experienced coach in Australian rugby in terms of coaching in the professional game,” says Toolan.

“He’s picked up quite a lot of experience at the Brumbies, then Western Force as an assistant coach and head coach last year. He’s got a very good understanding of how professional rugby works and how to manage professional athletes.”

Wessels has also bought into the Rebels’ task of convincing the city that rugby union deserves their support.

“Dave talks so much about wanting to make the people of Melbourne proud,” says Berne.

“How do you make someone proud? You want them to leave the stadium, whether we’ve won or lost, and say, ‘Jeez, those Rebels really had a crack and really got stuck in.’ That’s the culture we’re looking for.

Shaun Berne Berne during his playing days with Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You’ve got to be brave at times and have a go. We had an 80th-minute penalty we could have kicked for a draw against the Jaguares this year but we went for the try and our players took that choice with our blessing.

“We got turned over on the next phase but that was part of a decision where we were proud we had a go.”

Last year was a turbulent one for Australian rugby and the Rebels but the shift from five Super Rugby franchises to four has increased the competition for contracts and even in a vicious fight for sporting talent, the Melbourne club is already seeing the benefits.

“The biggest driver of high performance is choice,” says Toolan and Berne agrees.

“Leinster’s strength is their depth,” explains Berne. “If you don’t perform, someone is going to take your spot. James Ryan has taken someone’s spot.

“There are other talented players in the second row in Leinster but if you don’t perform and drive those standards, there is another choice for the coaches.

“For us now, it’s a struggle to pick our 23.”

- This article was updated at 7.00am on July 21 to include mention of Melbourne Victory playing at AAMI Park.

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Murray Kinsella

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